Sunday, June 22, 2003

Risky in Aceh for newsmen

As concerns about the safety of journalists covering the war in Acheh mount, there are even fears that the "new Order" of the past regime may once again prevail. ANDREAS HARSONO reports. 

ONE was killed, another was threatened to be shot inside the jungle, some lost their job, and many were caught in the line of fire between the Indonesian military and Aceh guerrillas.  

Journalists are facing more and more danger while covering the war in Aceh in the northern tip of Sumatra where a major Indonesian military offensive is underway to crush a long-running separatist insurgency.  

Indonesian media reported this week that villagers had found the body of Mohamad Jamal, a cameraman for Indonesian channel TVRI, on Tuesday (June 17) in Banda Aceh, the provincial capital of Aceh.  

The Banda Aceh-based Serambi Indonesia daily reported that Jamal’s body was found in a river. Clad only in his underwear, his eyes and mouth had been covered with duct tape, his hands bound with a nylon cord, and a noose lashed to a boulder was tied around his neck.  

Meanwhile, the army has threatened to shoot an American journalist stringing for the San Fransisco Chronicle, whom they believe to be a secret agent, if he does not surrender from his hiding place in the jungle with Aceh guerrillas.  

IN THE LINE OF FIRE: An Indonesian soldier gives instructions to a female journalist during an emergency training for journalists who face more danger as the war in Aceh escalates.

“If William Nessen is really an intelligence agent then the punishment is serious, but if he is truly a journalist then there is no problem,” said Army Chief Gen. Ryamizard Ryacudu.  

William Nessen has been with the Aceh guerrillas since last month. He defied a military order to turn himself to the army by June 14, saying he first needed assurances that he would not be jailed.  

Two journalists also lost their jobs from SCTV and Metro TV in Jakarta after they had respectively ran sensitive reports about the Indonesian military torturing civilians.  

“We’re concerned that this pressure is not going to end at the end of the war. It might revive the New Order tradition on putting pressure on Indonesian media,” said Atmakusumah Astraatmadja, chairman of Indonesia's Press Council last Saturday.  

“New Order” is the self-proclaimed name of President Suharto’s authoritarian regime, which ruled Indonesia between 1965 and 1998. It is notorious for its practice of putting systematic pressures on Indonesian media.  

Indonesian journalists only began to enjoy their press freedom after the fall of Suharto. New successive administrations accommodated press freedom, the print licensing policy was abolished and “information offices” were dismissed.  

When Hendrata Yudha lost his job from Metro TV and Dhandy Dwi Laksono from SCTV, both of them reported their dismissal to a journalist union, saying their dismissals were politically motivated. The respective managements said Dhandy lost his job because the contract was finished, while Hendrata lost his because of his frequent inaccuracy.  

Astraatmadja worried that the ongoing pressure will create a culture of fear among some Indonesian media that have no tradition of maintaining their independence. “They surrendered rather than fight back,” said Astraatmadja, who also pointed out that the SCTV and Metro TV stations had fired their reporters after complaints made by the military.  

Journalist mailing lists in Indonesia also circulated many stories about how journalists were caught between fire. More than a dozen journalists have also reported their cars being shot at while travelling in the villages of Aceh.  

Meanwhile, journalists in Aceh said that unidentified gunmen had kidnapped Jamal on May 20, the day after martial law was imposed in Aceh. The motive behind his kidnapping and murder still remain unclear. His brother Fuadi Ishak was also kidnapped and killed.  

In comments to the Associated Press this week, Nessen, a 46-year-old New York City native, said he was in Aceh to report on the latest military offensive against the Acehnese rebels. More than 300 people have died in the fighting since the operation began on May 19.  

Nessen said he was there to gather information for a book and documentary on Aceh. He said he hasn’t published stories or photographs on the conflict for some time because he had lost his laptop and other possessions.  

Andreas Harsono is The Star’s correspondent in Jakarta 

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